Burns’ Night Shenanigans – January 2012

My oh My, doesn’t the time fly….

Gigwise, January is usually a bit like the Parson’s Egg, starting out quite dead with a burst of activity near the end as people put on Burns’ Night events to celebrate the Scottish poet Rabbie Burns (for background see here). This year the Burns’ work was pretty well absent, with just one gig – a regular one for army medical officers down in Aldershot. More about this later in the blog.

At the beginning of the month I depped on guitar for the Jellied Reels, a barn dance band who can also do a rock’n’roll set – sometimes during the dances! The band is run by melodion player Steve Howe, who I used to work with in Nightwatch (the predecessor of MoonDance). Steve is one of the few melodeon plays that I’ve worked with who I rate highly, the others being Martin Hallet, Roger Watson, Simon Care, Paul Scourfield and Simon Bannister. Dave Good, who was also in Nightwatch, plays bass with the band and it was good to ‘rock out’ with the guys.

This year marks the start of my second stint on the Executive Committee (EC) of the Musicians’ Union (MU). I was elected with three other candidates by MU members in the East and South-east Region of the union. It turns out that next year is very special for the union as it marks the 120th anniversary of the meeting that started the organisation that was later to become the union we have today. The meeting was called in 1893 by Joe Williams, a 21 year old clarinettist at the Comedy Theatre in Manchester who wrote an anonymous letter calling for the formation of a union. In his letter he wote;

The Union that we require is a protection Union. One that will protect us from Amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers, and protect us from ourselves.

Still no change there then! You can see the history of the MU here. By chance the MU’s biennial conference falls on the anniversary year so the plan is to hold it in Manchester to celebrate Joe’s initiative.

The one Burns’ ceilidh I had was at the Officer’s Mess in Aldershot to a bunch of medical officers who were just about to head off to Afghanistan as part of the international force based there. This is the fourth year we’ve done this and they all had a great time. You can see a video from one of the previous events below.

I don’t know why there were so few Burns’ gigs this year – perhaps the thrifty scots were hanging onto their cash in these financially straitened times. On the other hand it could be that there has been an increase in ‘hobby’ bands who are seriously undercutting the professional outfits working in this field.

I reproduce the experience of a professional muso friend of mine (with permission) to illustrate the problem…

Epistle To The Amateur/Hobbyist Ceilidh Bands

I just received a request from someone (via a mutual friend) to find a dep accordionist for a ceilidh gig next weekend. The gig was one of those function-at-a-military base things that people who aren’t me seem to play at this time of year. Timings? 11pm-1am. The “fee”? FIFTY QUID FLAT. I’ve posted part of my reply here because I think that it’s important. Many of the modern folk scene’s movers/shakers/kingpins could use increased awareness of the problem, in my humble opinion.

“Not sure whether it’s your band or somebody else’s, but I thought I should highlight the fact that, if everyone is being paid a similar fee to the above, then the band has gone out for not much more than their expenses to play a function gig at a decent venue. To put it bluntly, this kind of thing is becoming a real problem for people like me whose livelihoods depend on these gigs. Most professional traditional musicians in the UK rely on playing for dances at private engagements fairly regularly as a major part of their annual income, and every year amateur bands going out for anywhere between expenses only to, say, 60% of a proper fee seem to be on the rise. They get away with it because, sadly, Joe Public’s quality threshold for trad or “folk” music is relatively low (south of the border, at least). These bands are undercutting professional outfits up and down the country and every month they eat up hundreds of gigs that could’ve paid, say, each musician’s council tax for that month, or vehicle insurance premium, or gone some way towards getting the rent together for the 1st, or … etc. etc.

It undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that I have no Burns ceilidh gigs in the diary this year, and had none last year either. I won’t bore you with my Scottish dance-band credentials, but trust me, that’s ludicrous. It’s squeezing every pro player I know on the circuit (whether they realise it or not), and in this tough financial climate it seems wrong not to point out that people with day jobs taking these gigs and charging next to nothing are helping to kill off an entire profession.

Now unlike many of my contemporaries, I don’t believe that either my decision to play music for a living or reasonably meagre existence give me a God-given right to be given gigs over players with day jobs. I believe in the pecking order of skill and have no problem with better musicians than me getting the gigs no matter what their employment status – but if your band’s in that league musically, please PLEASE charge a professional rate for function gigs rather than undercutting everyone. If you’re not professional-level players, surely there are other outlets to express yourselves musically or get a buzz from performing (that are probably more fun than playing for somebody’s wedding or whatever)? Sessions, open mic nights, floor spots at folk clubs, gigs at festivals, even running your own series of local public ceilidhs if you’re particularly into playing for dances, the list goes on. In the past, people running amateur function bands have indignantly pointed out to me that “…the audiences always tell us that they enjoy us and we put on a really good show!” to which I say “Then make them put their money where their collective mouth is, simple as that.”

I’ve made some people really angry by saying similar things in the past (I once had to get myself out of Spain in a hurry, long story) and I really hope that I haven’t made you feel the same way, but I do feel that strongly about it. It’s not even my personal opinion, it’s a solid fact – this is what’s going on all year round, and particularly at times of year such as Burns’ Night season.”

We both work in a field that requires a lot of skill, professionalism, dedication and which people are quite prepared to do for free, or at least at well below the market value. Amateur and hobby musicians often don’t have the supporting skills needed to support their musical hobbies, boring stuff like Public Liability Insurance or an appreciation of Health and Safety.

From the client’s point of view, it’s a bit like employing a ‘cowboy’ builder. The work may be very good, but what happens if something goes wrong and how reliable are they. I do a lot of wedding work and I get regular anguished emails from couples along the lines of;

Hello, I’m looking for a band to play at our wedding. It’s very late notice because my friends’ band who were going to play have disbanded! I’ve contacted a few bands but they are already booked and said that we’d have difficulty finding a band who wasn’t! I wonder if there is a way of finding out who IS available at such short notice? I’d be grateful for any advice.”

So, leaving aside things like Public Liability Insurance and legal contracts, it seems strange to me that bookers are prepared to trust such a vital aspect of an important event to someone who does it as a hobby?

The stupid thing about it is that (as the above points out) there are many opportunities for low pay / no pay gigs out there without having to steal the bread off the table of pro working musicians. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that English society just doesn’t want to have a cadre of dedicated professional musicians to perform live music. Instead, music would be provided by cheapo discos and bumbling amateur bands.

I was at a jam session in a Dunstable pub recently and saw this slogan on the back of a sweatshirt which kind of sums it up…

ORIGINALITY IS DEAD (if you want it) 

The same could said of skill in, and dedication to, performing music. Perhaps as the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once said;

“The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.”

(New York Herald Tribune, 9 March 1961)

Oh well, as they say on top gear, your mileage may vary…

About Brian Heywood

Brian Heywood is a free range musician who specialises in edgy roots / country / celtic fusion music. Previous work has received comments such as "... aggressive, top notch fiddling set off by periodic guitar explosions." - Tom Nelligan, Dirty Linen Magazine (USA), "Just when it seemed as if newer electric British roots bands were getting thinner on the ground - Very welcome and very good." - fROOTS Magazine (UK) and Steve Barnes Fairbridge Festival Artistic Director (Australia) - "... a rocking band - I was delighted with the audience response."
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